Sonic Arcade: Interview with Studio PSK
December 21, 2017

Studio PSK, a design firm from London, uses technology to create unusual and immersive experiences that tell stories through interactive objects, digital environments, installations, and graphics. The firm is behind the Polyphonic Playground, an installation that encourages adults to re-discover the experience of play with a structure combines the archetypal elements of the child’s playground – a slide, swings, and a climbing frame – with conductive materials and custom electronics to create a large-scale, body-activated MIDI controller. The playground encourages everyone, regardless of age, to combine the joy found in physical play with the pleasure of making music.

Polyphonic Playground is on view through February 11, with “Free Play” hours scheduled on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

1. Tell us a bit about your backgrounds coming to and working with sound as designers. 

I am unfortunately not particularly musical, but a few people in the studio have dabbled in music alongside design. Our Art Director Giulia Garbin’s DJ sets were infamous whilst she was studying in Italy and London, and Andy Sheen, the studio’s electrical engineer, actually came to creative technology through music, building his own analogue synthesizers. 

The main ambition of Studio PSK is to create incredible, positive experiences for people. For example, I’m influenced a lot by film, and the best cinematic experiences use sound in a sophisticated way to create unforgettable moments. This is what we are trying to do with design, and sound is a big part of creating any emotive experience. 

The Polyphonic Playground was the first specific sound installation we created, and the first time we’d worked with a dedicated sound engineer, Ben Williams, and musician, Reeps One. The more we worked with Ben and Reeps, the more commonalities we all saw. 

2. In what ways do you consider sound “material,” and how might design be a means to explore that? 

I think unfortunately, for a long time, sound has been left out, or tacked on at the end of the design process. In my opinion, it has been overlooked as a design medium (by designers) because of its intangibility. However, sound is an extremely important element
of any design—whether it be a sound installation or not. But I think it’s only recently that designers are also understanding how sound can be used to craft positive experiences with products, spaces, or services. 

3. Can you talk about how collab- oration is important to your work, whether in regard to whom you make work with or how the audience might act as collaborator in their reception of it? 

The main instigating factor for me to
set up Studio PSK was the ambition to work with the best people from different disciplines, to create genuinely new pieces that would be impossible for me to do by myself. 

This is still a major driving force for me, and influences the structure of the studio greatly. The core team in the studio is small, but we have a large extended family of people we work with regularly depending on the job. In any particular project, we might be working with 

a software engineer, neuroscientist, choreographer, glassblower, physicist, taxidermist, and the list continues. In my opinion, these unique collaborations lead to truly special outcomes. 

The same applies to the audience and context of any project. One half of any project exists in the world, and the other half in the mind of the viewer. The way an audience interacts with a piece, physically or psychologically, can massively change that piece of work. Rather than being too prescriptive about how to read a project, we often prefer to allow the audience to become an active part of its story. 

4. Sound practices seem to have increased in prevalence. Do you see a reason for sound’s wider practice and reception that is particular to our times? 

I think my generation of designers, and the one behind me, have had more exposure to working with things you can’t see or touch. The tools available and needed to work with intangible materials such as code and sound are more affordable and widespread than ever before. Building a website or making a soundtrack is now arguably quicker, cheaper, and logistically easier than making a piece of furniture, for instance. As many of us lead inevitably busier, more nomadic lives, these types of creative activities become more favorable than those needing lots of space or large expensive equipment. 

Additionally, the increase in voice control products may also be highlighting the importance of sound. Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home devices all introduce new mainstream ways of interacting with technology just through sound. Not only do these devices need to listen, they also need to speak. If these products are widely adopted, I think we’ll see an even bigger increase in the amount of sound designers.